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HISTORIC DEVELOPMENT

Brislington House was established as a private lunatic asylum on a previously undeveloped site by Dr Edward Long Fox (1761-1835) between 1804 and 1806.

Edward Fox, a Quaker and member of the Fox family of Falmouth, Cornwall, practised in Bristol as a physician from 1786, being attached to the Bristol Royal Infirmary from 1786 to 1816. In 1794 Fox took over the management of a small Quaker private asylum at Cleeve Hill, Downend, Bristol, which he subsequently purchased. The site purchased by Fox for his asylum in about 1804 had formed part of Brislington Common, which had been enclosed in 1780 (Enclosure map, Bristol Record Office). The site was chosen partly for its location close to the cities of Bath and Bristol, which could provide a supply of affluent patients.

The asylum, the first purpose-built establishment in England, was opened in 1806. A prospectus published about 1809 (Somerset Record Office) explains that the asylum's distinctive plan was intended to allow Dr Fox to implement his therapeutic theories of segregation and classification by gender, medical symptoms, and social and financial background. Each block had access to its own designated airing court, beyond which was a range of cells for the restraint of refractory patients. This arrangement is shown on a plan probably published about 1809 (Huntington Library, California), while the main buildings are shown in an engraved view which accompanied the prospectus. In addition to the airing courts, pleasure grounds with an extensive system of walks were laid out around the House; further walks led through the parkland and agricultural estate, while a cliff-top walk led through woodland above the River Avon.

The grounds and agricultural estate were used for therapeutic purposes, pauper patients being employed on manual work and those of middle- and upper-class backgrounds taking walks and exercise in the grounds under the supervision of attendants (Greenwood 1822). This regime was noted with approval by the House of Commons Committee appointed to consider the 'better regulation of Madhouses in England' in 1815.

By the 1830s a move away from rigid classification by social and economic circumstances allowed gentlemen patients to work in the pleasure grounds forming walks and performing other tasks; these are described in an account of his treatment at Brislington in 1830-1832 written by John Perceval (Bateson 1961).

In 1816 a detached cottage, Lanesborough Cottage, was built in the grounds to accommodate Lord Lanesborough, while in 1819 the Swiss Cottage was built for Lord Carysfoot. Two further detached villas, The Beeches and Heath House, were built on the western boundary of the site in the 1820s, the latter being occupied by Dr Fox from 1825. In addition, Heath Farm, then known as Heath Cottage, was in use by 1836 as a fifth detached picturesque residence for patients (Fox and Fox 1836).

By the mid 1830s Brislington House was 'placed in the centre of what is now become a well wooded estate' (ibid). The estate, with its park, pleasure grounds and farm, was intended to replicate that of a gentleman in order, both to reassure the relatives of wealthy patients and to provide a secluded place for the implementation of Dr Fox's treatments.

Dr Edward Fox retired from the direction of the asylum in 1829, passing its management to two of his sons, Dr Francis Ker Fox and Dr Charles Joseph Fox; at Dr E L Fox's death in 1835 the property was inherited jointly by the two brothers. In 1840 a detached Private House for the proprietor was constructed to the south of the original building, while in 1850-1851 a major programme of alterations was undertaken. This included merging the three male and female divisions into a single unit for each sex, the extension and remodelling of the airing courts, and the construction of a chapel (Fox 1906).

The asylum continued to be run by the family until the 1950s, when it was sold and converted into a nurses' home. At this time the estate was fragmented, a secondary school being constructed to the south-west of the asylum, and playing fields being laid out in the park to the east and west. Heath House was destroyed in an air raid in 1940, while the former asylum building is today (2001) in the process of being converted into apartments.

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